Quick disclaimer: this text is an attempt to process for myself a number of threads that I've been considering over the last few months into some kind of cohesive whole and I deeply respect the artists, designers and technologists grappling with these issues.
Google Glass, CC image by CyberHades http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyberhades/
1. Disappearing Interface, Evaporating Agency
The first strand has been termed No UI or the invisible interface, a broad movement driven by a number of technical and usability trends. The rise of the smartphone has seen a move away from the general computer model prevalent in the desktop era into an ecosystem of highly specialised apps. The limitation of the mobile device itself, in its constrained screen real estate and its lesser hardware specs, guide developers toward a more simplified, focused approach. The mobile experience, characterised by 'jobs-to-be-done' (even when that job is social networking), and a 'dip in, dip out' approach also put pressure on both interfaces and user-flows to be streamlined and simple. With mobile traffic set to surpass desktop in 2014, these set of unique characteristics has been a catalyst for a broader change in thinking across technology platforms and devices. Johnny Ive's vaunted rethink of Apple's recent iOS7 operating system saw the wholesale jettisoning of ‘skeuomorphic’ elements which refer to real-world objects, substituted instead by a notion of lightness which pervades this update. “Conspicuous ornamentation has been stripped away” promises the website - translucency and clarity are the new buzzwords. The design team rethought each element in their search for an ideal user experience where Apple “offers up the right things, in the right place, right when you need them".
In a similar fashion Google introduced sweeping changes to its services at its inaugural I/O conference. Senior Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra all but echoed Apple, stating that “technology can just go away and people can focus on what makes them the happiest.” while walking through a slew of new functionality to support this vision. Google now analyses the content of each new Google+ post, automatically tagging it with the appropriate hashtag. They also pick ‘highlighted images’, excluding shots with ‘bad exposure’ or blur and prioritising those with recognisable landmarks. Photographs are auto-treated with skin softening, white balance adjustments, vignettes and a plethora of other subtle post-production edits. “All you have to do is upload your pictures”, explains Gundotra, these improved shots and behind-the-scenes technology are “gifted” to users from Google.
One of the key drivers of this trend has been the use of alternate input devices. Improvements in speech recognition has led to its much more widespread use, while Apple’s adoption of the fingerprint reader and Nymi’s heartbeat monitor with modern mainstays like an API and Bluetooth should signal a more mainstream uptake for these too. The new dialogue screen for Apple's virtual assistant Siri is essentially a blank slate comprised of a 'waiting for input' ellipses animation. In a recent demo of the no-UI object par excellence, Google Glass, Sergey Brin continued the rhetoric about technology being an invisible support structure to a vibrant life, explaining the goal of the device as one which enables the user to be “free to experience the world without fussing with a phone”. Worn and evangelised by Brin, and with a controversial, restricted beta-tester policy, Glass has been a natural target for attacks ranging from a limited racial and socioenonomic spectrum ('glassholes') to enabling a type of attention purgatory, creating zombie users who are neither 'here nor there', neither present nor absent'. Glass incorporates a variety of functionality that would seem vital to a NoUI approach: minimal user input interpreted by a 'black box' algorithm, a vertically integrated hardware/software solution enabling seamless functionality, and data which is abstracted away (in this case, stored in the cloud). In this future, technology becomes a ubiquitous layer, ever present but never presented, monitoring us but not bothering us with the details of this relationship, frictionless. After all, ‘Technology should never get in the way of humanity.’
Istanbul Drone Shadow by James Bridle, CC image by STML http://www.flickr.com/photos/stml/
2. Making the Invisible Visible
A broad range of artists, designers and technologists have risen to question this approach, advocating instead for 'seamful' design in which the user is made aware of the mechanics, not just the magic. Timo Arnall encapsulates many of these arguments in his essay 'No to NoUI', elaborating how interfaces are an important cultural language, and why removing them asserts the myth of 'immateriality' , substituting a 'self-evident' machine and legible controls for a black box explained by 'folk theories' such as the cloud. Arnall explains that "making visible material out of technological infrastructure is the first step towards understanding them. What we can't see, we cannot critically evaluate."
The position is backed by other new-media artists such as Julian Oliver, who co-wrote the Critical Engineering Manifesto, and James Bridle, whose 'New Aesthetic' research project explores the way the visual languages in surveillance, code, social networking and other technological infrastructures feedback into the everyday. Bridle goes so far as to say that "Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it, and are powerless. The job, then, is to make such things visible." The language of agency permeates much of the ideology in this space - we should "better equip ourselves” with understanding, thereby empowering ourselves to make more informed choices, choices that are more conscious, more our own.
Unfortunately many of the works - especially the more complex ones - form their own technological layer, obscuring rather than functioning as lens. Take Einar Sneve Martinussen’s 'Satellite Lamps' for example, produced as part of the Touch Project which Arnall was also involved with. These are beautiful objects of contemporaneity, flickering in response to the waxing and waning signal from 24 GPS satellites as they orbit earth. But any didactic effect, illuminating the intricacies of the global positioning system and thereby activating an informed engagement, remains with the artist/designer, the one with the technical knowledge, code libraries and hardware to turn this invisible phenomenon into a visual object. This is invisible magic transformed to visible magic, replacing ‘GPS’ with ‘Max/MSP’ and leaving the public none the wiser.
In contrast, Bridle’s own “Drone Shadow” series, carried out in several countries, is a compelling exercise in low/no-tech. Outlines of various military drones currently in service are marked on the street in 1:1 scale using paint or tape, allowing the public to feel the physical scale of these often intangible threats using their own bodies. “Drone Shadow” functions excellently as a form of experiential knowledge precisely because there’s ‘nothing to it’, no secondary, highly technical translation that comes between the viewer’s body and the drone as technical infrastructure made visible.
Jennifer Chan's "Tristan" at Future Gallery, photographed by author
3. Post-Internet Play
The third strand is post-internet art, characterised by a range of young artists working with technology as a kind of ubiquitous given, ‘where the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality’. If agency is taken as an informed subject able to dispassionately surveill technology from an unbiased outside, post-internet art takes a decidedly apathetic approach, often operating within technology frameworks in a collaborative or even playful approach (mitspielen), utilising the logic of branding and co-option for their own benefit. Marc Garrett has linked this particular stance to Slavoj Zizek’s ‘interpassivity’, in which our “engagement with interactive experience has lost traction.” While some of the rhetoric emanating from tne new-media and open source communities decries Facebook as a kind of commercialised Stasi-space, where users “inform on their friends”, artists such as Ed Fornieles utilize it for performances, harnessing the innate familiarity of ‘Generation Internet’ with the storytelling mechanisms inherent to the social network. Artist Jennifer Chan describes similar strategies which could be termed trolling or benign griefing - gaming systems from within, rather than “overthrowing them or creating new ones.” These range from “friending as many users as possible” or “looping webcam feeds” to “archiving and re-uploading banned content.” Garrett sums up this attitude beautifully in a phrase which couldn’t be more of a polar opposite from much of the language in Section 2. “As the futuristic time machine streams onwards at high-speed, agency slouches into a spurious and distant dream. Others and the same are enjoying the flow for the sake of self expression within these scripted frameworks.”
Slide from NSA Prism programme, recently released
Enabling Agency, first steps
In the wake of the Arab spring and the financial crisis and in the midst of the massive abuse of privacy unveiled in the NSA/Prism revelations, agency would seem to be all the more urgent. While problematic as pure activism, art is inherently political, opening into the wider plane of aesthetics which define “a cartography of the visible, the intelligible and also of the possible.” Are there art practices which provide models for this moment, which engender critical agency within their viewing publics, encouraging a deeper engagement with technology?
One of the strategies with potential is one I would roughly term ‘lowering the bar’. Agency in relation to technology suffers from many of the same problems as political agency. As Cory Doctorow noted in a recent panel, many simply have neither the time nor the means. While as a student it’s possible to “essentially pursue activism almost full-time, afterwards activism becomes something that you rarely or never do because there isn’t a smooth gradient of activities that you can use to engage or disengage with activism.” Acknowledging the pressure and limits inherent in the everyday life of the viewer is an important first step. Enabling and transforming a small act of agency into a wider experience, a farther-reaching impact, or a longer-duration engagement would seem to be a natural second step. In the political arena, one of the organisations excellent at this is Avaaz, enabling a sliding scale of agency - from simply clicking to sign a petition, to donating money towards projects or even organising a campaign which can draw on the network’s 20 million members.
'We See In Every Direction' screenshot, copyright Jonas Lund
Lund’s Web 3.0?
One art project which seems to exemplify this kind of ‘extended agency’ is Jonas Lund’s ‘We See In Every Direction’, a custom web browser enabling ‘collaborative, synchronised’ browsing. This project follows on from Lund’s previous pieces such as the Paintshop.biz, which allowed the public to create artworks using basic digital tools (MS Paint-esque) and a ranked community, or Paint Your Pizza, in which Lund reused these same tools, collaborating with local restaurants to enable users to draw a picture and order it as a pizza. The work takes a core group of familiar technological skills (browsing), shifting a single-minded, single-user activity into a highly social space where on average 40 users can “jockey for control… or sit back and let their friends take care of the surfing”.
The experience neatly bisects two models: the now dying, disconnected personal computer (“you can compute with it, nobody will know”), and the ‘more human, more social’ web 2.0 which has rapidly devolved into a walled garden in corporate blue hues where ‘self-expression’ is strictly defined by a Single-User-License-Agreement. Instead Lund posits something like a social web without shareholders, a far less productive but ultimately more interesting space, where ‘collective’ can range from democratic to mob mentality, and failure and surprise are unchecked by bots or community managers. Interestingly, by extrapolating Apple/Google’s vision of the future to its not-so-ludicrous extreme, the majority of browser users actually get far less direct agency - someone else is literally ‘driving’. For those who aren’t actively fighting for it, the browser removes any illusion of control, turning passivity into something tangible. As the group is helplessly hurled from one site to another by a single alpha-user, it would be easy to conjure up Joni Mitchell’s famous line: “you don’t know what you got / til it’s gone.”
Ted Talk by Jeremijenko, discussing Solar Chimney project, screenshot author
Jeremijenko, fighting a crisis of agency
While new-media artists seek to make the invisible visible, Natalie Jeremijenko seeks to give the long-term, often silent phenomena of nature an audible voice today. Jeremijenko is clear about advocating for “social change” and “environmental transformation”, labels which are still viewed skeptically within contemporary art. Education seems to form a core part of her practice, and here her work has a natural advantage in that our awareness of environmental threats and fluency in this space has a head-start in comparison with technological issues. But even so, her projects are often small, easy to communicate interventions, or ‘prescriptions’ in the context of her Environmental Health Clinic. This is a very intentional strategy meant to combat the inability of starting something - anything - in the face of such daunting environmental challenges, a problem she labels “the crisis of agency”. Jeremijenko’s own description for her Solar Chimney project for example, which collects black carbon and reformulates it into pencil lead, is that if you “put a bit of black plastic on the side of the building it’ll heat up and you’ll get passive air flow”. In an age of multi-year art projects communicated via tomes of International Art English, this is an unashamed art/science micro-project explained by Science 101.
Another key characteristic of many of Jeremijenko’s projects is that they are nearly all carried out in public space: One Trees, 1000 genetically identical saplings planted throughout the SF Bay Area, NoPark, micro green spaces installed in parking spaces around NYC, or Mussel Choir, where marine organisms are used as data input in the Hudson River and Melbourne’s Docklands. Of course, being situated public space doesn’t guarantee public engagement, as James Wine’s derisive “turd on the plaza” moniker can attest to, or conversely Felix Gonzales-Torres’ reminder that even a work in private space ‘‘will sometimes be more public because it can relate to the public.” Still I’d argue that the kinds of public spaces mentioned previously typically contain a broader spectrum of people, which Jeremijenko seems to engage well with: whether leading bike rides, releasing robots with students, politicians and a FOX news team, or staging a moth cinema for park bystanders. But while her prolific practice provides an interesting model for encouraging agency and engagement with a field, as artworks many are highly problematic - ranging from the merely romantic or ridiculous (‘Butterfly Bridge’ or ‘Taking a Tadpole for a Walk’), to the awkward anthropomorphism of fish or salamanders txting, resulting in a familiar new-media “data in / data out” translation exercise, where both environmental and technical agency remain with the artist.
Is Agency All Important, Is Art the Means?
This begs the question: does all this emphasis on agency constrain works to a certain mode, a certain way of communicating? Does it create an inevitable push towards either a dumbed-down or didactic form of art? Is it possible to make a strong statement while also allowing the viewer to complete it?
If agency is the capacity to act within a system, perhaps videogames might be a medium better suited to this purpose. Presupposing - indeed dependent on - direct agency from the player and with the potentiality for seamfulness (especially when griefing or cheating) could they provide a micro playground for our technological infrastructures?
Alongside the overwhelmingly positive cultural (and when monetized, financial) value that notions like participation and interaction have, do we have space for an agency which is destructive or frustrated? Now our software has become more social, more human, more integrated, perhaps it’s time to look at our own seams and scars while examining how technology codetermines them.